Asking for What You Want . . . with Shirin Laor-Raz Salemnia

Apr 7, 2022

Shirin Salemnia

Question:  What can you do with focus on drive in both toys and STEM?  And what can a persistent Shirin Salemnia do?

Guest: Shirin Laor-Raz Salemnia, Founder and CEO, WhizGirls Academy and PlayWerks

Shirin shares a passionate tale of drive, success with extreme persistence, and then designing new businesses to give back.  She talks about her journey through college, Mattel, MGA/Bratz, and building her two current businesses.  She didn’t take no for an answer — and said no many times to missions that pulled on her coattails.  She is one of our more driven guests, not taking no from guidance counselors, security guards, and many other people in her life.  The movie Big set her on her mission and voices as distinctive as Deepak Chopra and Simon Sinek inspired her to her current paths of giving back.
Our Guest

Shirin Laor-Raz Salemnia is the Founder and CEO of PlayWerks and the founder of WhizGirls Academy. PlayWerks is an interactive media company that creates high quality multi-platform immersive games and experiences that engage children and adults. WhizGirls Academy is where students engage in project based learning and gamification that help them with tech and digital literacy while acquiring coding skills, entrepreneurship tools, and building confidence and growing as members of their communities with a healthy balanced lifestyle slant.

In 2013, she hosted the first Hackathon for Women and Girls with The White House Council of Women and Girls. In May 2014, she hosted the Kids Hack for LA in collaboration with Mayor Eric Garcetti, the White House, and’s Foundation. Also in 2014, Shirin gave her Ted Talk “Are You a Gamer or a Gardener?” at the TedxYouth conference in Los Angeles, CA.

She is currently teaching Tech for Social Impact/Entrepreneurship at USC School of Engineering/(ITP)Viterbi. In December 2014, Shirin joined President Obama, the First Lady, and Vice President Joe Biden along with hundreds of college presidents and other higher education leaders at the “Reach Higher Summit” at the White House to announce the commitment to serve 25,000 inner city children and adults nationwide.

The first WhizGirls Academy Mobile Tech Tour event with Mayor Garcetti in South Central Los Angeles in December 2014, was attended by 1500 people. More recently, in March of 2015 Shirin was honored by LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin as 2015 LA City Pioneer Woman of the Year. Check out his write up and her appearance at the Getty House with Mayor Garcetti (Check out the 12th pic). In October 2015, She was honored as a Tribeca Disruptor Innovation Fellow.

In March 2016 she was honored as IJWO Woman of the Year.

Mentioned Links

  • Twitter @ShirinSalemnia
  • Facebook @ShirinLaorRazSalemnia
  • Linkedin:
  • WhizGirls Academy:
  • TEDxYouth Talk: Are You a Gamer or a Gardener?
  • Mattel:
  • MGA & Bratz:
  • Jetsetter by Shag:
  • Jordan Mechner:
  • Oviatt Library at Cal State Northridge:
  • Jack Dangermon at ESRI:
  • The Movie Big:


  • 00:00 Introduction
  • 03:17 PlayWerks, Tom Hanks, and College Choices
  • 05:13 WhizGirls Academy and hackathons
  • 06:25 Arc-GIS and Esri
  • 12:15 Career Centers and Conflict
  • 12:59 Persian Parents
  • 15:09 Nutrition?
  • 16:02 Finding Toy People
  • 18:06 Walking Into Mattel
  • 19:23 Super Persistent
  • 21:18 Interviewing at Mattel
  • 23:44 Deepak Chopra and Crisis
  • 25:49 Choosing Options and Saying Yes
  • 28:51 General Assembly and Persistence
  • 31:10 Success? Self-Metrics
  • 33:09 When Do You Close Doors
  • 35:24 Everyone Has a Mission


Gigi Johnson 0:06
So we are recording this conversation on St. Patrick’s Day here in 2022. And I, I am excited for me to talk with you because we have talked informally for years at events that we’ve talked about things and back alleys of Interactive Peer Group TV Academy stuff. And we haven’t really talked about the you part of this. I’m very excited to have this “you as creative innovator” conversation that is part of this whole adventure. So Hello, and thank you for joining us today.

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 0:44
Hello, and thank you for having me. This is so exciting. When I got the email, I was like, Oh, that’s so cool. I love . . . .you and everything that you do. And I’m so glad that . . . well, unfortunately, we missed each other the past two years of the TV Academy events.

But I did, for a while, have you come out to my class at USC. So that was fun and . . .

Gigi Johnson 1:04
And that’s been part of my journey stories: coming in and talking to your [USC] Viterbi Engineering class about life and careers, and how to be bold in their career choices.

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 1:15
Yeah, I feel like my journey has been about getting my career going, but then helping others and giving back and making a difference in a lot of ways with careers. So I’m glad that we cross paths. And I think that happened accidentally. I think one night at the TV Academy event, we were walking to the car, and we were just started chatting. And I was saying, you know, I got this class at USC. And unfortunately, I’m not teaching there anymore. But I was for five years. And it was a fun experience. And we were kind of sharing stories about teaching. And you were saying you were doing stuff at UCLA. So it was interesting how I got to know that other part of you, which was exciting.

Gigi Johnson 1:52
But we’re gonna talk a lot about parts of you. And I want to talk about kind of how also you make decisions to do and not do things. So we’ll come back to the to, to whatever we can talk about in various things. Because I know that one thing is that you’re about to make a big announcement. And we won’t be talking about that today. Because it is not . . .

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 2:09
unfortunately not yet. Yeah, as much as I’m itching to get it out there, I have a partner that doesn’t allow it yet. And we’re still technically under an NDA. So yeah. But there will be a big announcement very soon. And I’m super excited about it. I can’t I can’t wait to make that announcement.

Gigi Johnson 2:27
So I’m gonna ask everyone to go the show notes. And we’ll say this at the end — that by then we might be able to announce it, or it will follow along with the show notes. So you can stay tuned on all of this. But in the meantime, what are you doing now that you can talk about?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 2:42
Yes, I’m still running my two startups in the tech space for kids. PlayWerks, which is interactive media. And we create IP that’s transmedia and multi-platform. And our first brand is called WhizGirls, which we’re not officially launched on the gaming side yet. We’re still in beta, but also other is coming soon. Which is actually not part of the announcement, but that’s another thing. And then WhizGirls Academy, which is my, like, technically social good, social impact, live extension of the games with girls. So, so I, because I started PlayWerks when I left my toy business job when I where I wanted to be like Tom Hanks in the movie Big, which I honestly never thought I would leave because I was obsessed with wanting to be like Tom Hanks in the movie Big ever since I was a little kid. And I went to Cal State Northridge to do that. And I had everyone –including my family and the Career Center at Cal State Northridge — saying, “You’re crazy. We’ve never heard of anybody come major in child psychology and say they’re going to be a Toy Tester.” And unfortunately for me, or fortunately, because I’m a big book nerd, I used to go to the library at the Oviatt Library at Cal State Northridge. There was this book, huge book, like 600 pages, and it was all about careers. And I opened it one day. And I was like, “Look, it says child psych major – toy tester — I’m not crazy.” Like I know. I’ve always like looked at media and been inspired. And I took it to the Career Center. I said “Look, look!” I mean, we don’t have Google Now. We barely were starting to get email back then. Now I’m really aging myself. And they still were like, no, no, fill out this Myers Briggs form, fill out this Myers Briggs form. And I was like, “I’m showing you a book that says child psych major — toy tester career, along with others.” And they kept saying, no, no, I’ll try. I’ll child . . . child.psych majors usually come and get a master’s degree or a PhD. They work in a school, they work in a hospital, they start a clinic. We’ve never ever heard anyone ever tell us they’re going to be a Toy Tester. You know, like, well, there’s always a first

We’ve had a game tester on this show who came in the backdoor that way. And that was Arabian, who came and talked about the fact that’s how he cracked his way into

That’s right. I remember.

Gigi Johnson 4:58
The Gaming space.

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 4:59
Yeah, that’s right

Gigi Johnson 5:00
So I’m gonna back you up further. But let’s sort of step — step into the present right now. If someone says, I want to hang out with her with WhizGirls, what is WhizGirls right now? It is hackathons. Yes?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 5:13
WhizGirls Academy is hackathons. Yeah. WhizGirls is the games. We’re still in beta, like I said, not officially officially launched yet. But WhizGirls Academy is where we do the healthy, balanced tech lifestyle hackathons. So we use the characters in the games, It’s project-based learning. We’re teaching real coding, HTML, CSS, and UI UX. And we’re also we partnered with General Assembly at the time and shipped their curriculum, and we gamified it. And then we also do like during the course of our hackathon day, we do like meditation, fitness and healthy eating. We have like keynote speakers, talk about how they got to their careers in the tech space or other like in engineering, or we had people from NASA JPL and SpaceX, and all kinds of different fun entrepreneurs and stuff. And then at the end of the day, they pitch . . . Oh, and then we also use, . . . sorry, ArcGIS, which is

Gigi Johnson 6:06
Slow down a little bit, because you’ve said many acronyms so far. And some of our listeners will know what those acronyms are. And some are going, what the heck is she talking about? And I would say maybe some of the 20 year olds I used to hang out with we’re going What is this ArcGIS thing? And what is . . .

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 6:25
Yeah, so ArcGIS is a platform that ESRI uses. ESRI is the first ever mapping company. So if you imagine like Google Maps, but with data, so they were around way before Google Maps, and there’s a ton of data. So I met them . . . actually, I met Jack Dangermond, the founder at’s big event that he used to have every year for STEM, and he invited me to lunch. And then we started chatting, and I said, “I would love to include, you know, ArcGIS, the platform, in our hackathons.” And he was like “Sure why not, like we’re doing stuff with” I’d love to extend you kn ow, to you

Now, I ‘m assuming our listeners will know who is, but they may or may not know that does his and does his whole and actually has gone into robotics and LAUSD with Dean Kaman. We’ll come back, I want to haul you backwards. We’re going to go backwards. Because usually there is a real great origin story and you have fabulous interwoven origins for that how you got here, but in some ways, you are an interesting combination of toys, games, child psychology, coding, social activism. When did you first . . . who introduced you to coding? And what has that — their impact on your life — been?

That’s a great question. So in the third grade, I had a female computer science teacher, I went to LAUSD public school. . . Fairburn Ave. Elementary in Westwood, right down the street from UCLA. And I had a female computer science teacher every day that taught us how to code Fortran on an Apple IIC green screen computer. And that’s why I actually played Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. And I was obsessed at school every day. And at home, I had it too. But I also had Atari and Nintendo. So now I’m a child of the 80s, as you can tell, but I watched the movie Big and it changed my life. I think if I didn’t watch the movie Big I probably would have stuck to coding and tech. Because she was super fashionable, really fun and bubbly. And every day that was the biggest class I looked forward to, my computer science class, which was mandatory, by the way and . .

Gigi Johnson 8:41
. . . which is very good for that time . . . very, very advanced for that time. So your school?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 8:45
Well, I mean, I everybody says it. I mean, I was an LAUSD public school and when I was telling LAUSD people, they’re like, “That’s wild.” I’m like, “I know,” because I was going to schools recently in there was no computer labs and stuff. And I was like, what happened here?

Gigi Johnson 8:58
And that’s an interesting question as to what happened here. Have you gone back to tell her that she’s had this impact on kicking you off in your life?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 9:06
You know, I’ve been looking for her left and right. Her name is Miss Feldman. I can’t find …. I looked on Facebook, I Googled, I can’t find her anywhere, which is really strange, because I was actually approached to do a commercial with her about this whole thing. When I couldn’t find her, I was like,

Gigi Johnson 9:22
If anything . . .

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 9:23
I reached out. I reached out to some other student teachers. Actually, I have one teacher that I’m still friends with on my Facebook that was at the same school and she couldn’t even find her and I was like, Oh, that’s weird. I don’t know…

Gigi Johnson 9:34
If anybody listening or watching knows where Mrs. … Mrs. Feldman is please, you know, reach out. We’ll give the contact information in the chat. So who knows? Maybe this will help so help help her get connected with you.

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 9:47
Yeah, I would love to thank her because she was like, super fashionable and super techy. And, I mean, I never even heard of like, like when people say, oh, you know, girls shouldn’t do tech or coding and gaming, I’m just like, I understand because I grew up with equality. She never pointed a finger and said, “You’re a girl. You shouldn’t do that.” We did it all together. So this whole this stuff is foreign to me.

Gigi Johnson 10:09
And actually, coding is much more dominantly women actually early on. There’s really interesting direction the . . .

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 10:16
The 80s. Yeah, yeah.

Gigi Johnson 10:18
So not everyone . . . This is where I go. Not everyone knows not everyone knows the movie Big. That may seem really strange to you, but not everyone knows that movie Big. So if you were gonna explain big to someone who didn’t know it, why it was inspirational to you other than of course, Tom Hanks is really charming in it. . . and much younger then too . . .

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 10:38
That’s funny. People usually ask me, you want to be a guy and I was like, no, no, he was a child. He had a wish. I don’t want to give the movie away. You gotta watch it. I think it’s on Netflix or something. Now I’m sure you can find it. But I think it’s 1987, I’m not mistaken and . . .

Gigi Johnson 10:54
He as a kid was able to . . .

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 10:56
He’s a kid . . .

Gigi Johnson 10:57

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 10:58
He . . . he grows up one overnight basically enters into an adult and he has to like, I guess, support himself. So he decides to get a job at a toy company, which I think it was actually modeled around Mattel, because the logo was very similar. They don’t use Mattel. I’m sure there was product placement there. So yeah, so that’s how he gets a job. He . . I guess . . . runs into the head of the company at a FAO Schwartz while he was playing on the piano is with his feet. And he wouldn’t leave him alone. And he was testing toys, doing focus groups. And ironically, at CSUN when I was doing my child psych undergrad degree, and I still did a little minor in family and computer . . . Family and Consumer Studies. We had a one-way play lab, we called it, where we watched the kids grow developmentally. And we had to write research reports. So we had focus groups, but not obviously for marketing and products. We had it for the kids live. So I had that training for everything that I started doing at Mattel.

Gigi Johnson 12:05
You actually had a Research Lens, which is unique also to have a research and observational behavioral studies lens.

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 12:13

Gigi Johnson 12:13
Coming in to creative play.

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 12:15
In school. Yeah, exactly. And, and that’s why and I would tell the career center and I’d be like, Look, we did this. Like I had to write my research reports on these kids since they were XYZ ages, like throughout the years of me being in school here. So what are you saying? I mean, this is exactly what I was like literally training for being at Mattel. And they just like were like, and I was like well, and then also the research that I’ve done is I can go to Mattel, which is in El Segundo. Technically, I went to North it was like South, next to you know, the airport. Or I could go to Hasbro which is in Rhode Island and I prefer obviously to stay in LA . . . just makes more sense.

So I’m gonna stop you and kind of go sideways a bit. What did your parents think of all this?

Oh my god, they saw that was nuts. Parent — my parents thought I was nuts. Because obviously I’m Persian and I always make a joke. I say I came on a magic carpet ride to LA when I was two and people look at me like what magic carpet really like? Like, yeah, magic carpet. I’ve never been back to Iran. I don’t know what it’s like, but they didn’t have market research in Iran. So, you know.

Gigi Johnson 13:20
So your parents there was this young woman who had Fortran and coding experience, love games, found child psychology and game test designer in a big thick career book. And then thought that . . . were the encouraging of this? I mean, Cal State Northridge is a it’s a good solid, public institution, safe quality institution. ere they just kind of going “She’ll get over it”?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 13:48
Yeah, they thought it was a phase. But also my driving force was really the movie Big just because that was my sample in real life. Like I had to sample in school every day of doing those research reports in the, you know, child play lab, you know, type of thing. And I think the lab school still exists because that’s what they do for that major. But the real the real deal for me was the movie Big. I didn’t care that it was the movie. I didn’t care Tom Hanks was a guy. I didn’t care any of that. So I was like, he tested toys. He had fun every day going to work. He had the corner office. He had the toys. They had the whole thing with that Empire State Building and that people were messing with him that he couldn’t make the right thing or something though it’s not the right not the right toy or whatever. But he had you know, the big kid inside of him was like these are the toys that kids will like, so . . .

Gigi Johnson 14:39
You then graduated from . . Did you intern when you were in school? Did you try stuff out? Did you raise your hand and go “Mattel! Look at me I’m right here! I am. . . .Yeah, so

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 14:48
I did. I actually . . . so when my parents and friends . . . so I had friends that were going to like UCLA majoring in psycho bio and wanting to be doctors and lawyers, you know, the typical like Persian jobs or whatever typical jobs ike engineering, whatever those things. And I kept saying, no, no, I want to be a Toy Tester. And people were like, Why don’t you just try other things? So at one point, I was like, maybe I should do nutrition. I like nutrition. I did volunteer in the hospital. I can’t stand it. I was like, get me out of here after a week. I couldn’t . . . .once like, you got to do a rotation in the psych ward. I was like, I’m out, goodbye, like, thanks, I can’t do this.

Gigi Johnson 15:21
I shouldn’t laugh. For some people . . . or something. Every . . . for every job, there’s somebody who actually gets passionate about it. I tend to think there’s things I love that other people hate. But yeah, it’s nice to know that environmental thing early. I don’t want to. . . .

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 15:37
Yeah, it made a huge difference. Because honestly, like, I love nutrition, and for myself, I’m really like picky about food and everything, because I have allergies, whatever. But like, not as a career, not something I would be happy with doing, you know, as a career. So I’m glad that I figured that out. And going through the motions. It was like I had graduated. And I had one professor from CSUN that was my champion, and we still keep in touch. And he kept saying, You can do this, we’re going to make this happen. You’ll figure this out. And like I said, there was no Google at the time, we barely were getting emails. I was literally going to the library and figuring out Okay, so there’s a Women in Toys annual like event where they give awards in New York, and then there’s like this toy group, I guess. We didn’t have meetups back then. But they had like this toy group in LA, people from Mattel and smaller toy companies that would get together. So I found those places. And I went there. And I talked to the people. At the time, there was this thing called GameWorks, which the guy that was the head was a head of the whole thing. So I talked to him, and I said, What are you saying? And he was like, well, sorry, I can’t really help you. But like, you know, I’ll put up feelers for anybody that I know is looking for . . . to hire new people and what have you. Then I went to a UCLA job fair. This is actually really funny because I went through like a recruiting firm that was in Manhattan Beach, and I went through six or seven different recruiters from the same company during that Job Fair at UCLA, and then they said come to our office or you know, the president of the recruiting company wants to meet you and I started being like, cool. This is Manhattan Beach, it’s right by Mattel. This is awesome. So I walked in. And I sat down and she looks at me and she goes, college students that graduate, they don’t know the right hand from their left hand. And I was like, wait, what? Like I’m telling you, I want to be a Toy Tester. I’ve done my research. It’s either Mattel or Hasbro. I’m not going to Rhode Island, please. It’s down the street. Mattel. Just get me someone in HR. She would not stop. She was like, um, you know, college students. They don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m like, I’m telling you exactly what I want, Woman. What are you saying? Like, she’s like, I have a perfect job for you is this company called Jax Pacific. It’s right. It’s a beautiful toy company.

Gigi Johnson 17:52
I was gonna say that was a nice selection.

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 17:56
Yes. But I said do they have a research department? And she goes, No. And I said, What am I going to do there? She’s like, is a customer service position. You just need to get your foot in the door. I was like, that’s a dead end job woman like she pissed me off so badly. I left her. I drove to Mattel on my way back. I at the time had sent in my resume and I got a postcard. So I walked in the security guard was like, Can I help you? And I said, Yes. Can you get me someone in the HR department? And he said, Do you have an appointment? And I said no. And he, he looked at me and he said, Well, this is a high security building. I can just let you in. And I said, I know. Can you just get me someone in the HR department. I sent in my resume. I got a postcard. I’m here to get a job. I don’t need a postcard, like please. We went back and forth for 10 minutes

Gigi Johnson 18:41
This is you bold as brass 21 year old.Yes?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 18:45
Yeah, I was like, Yeah, around that. I think around that age. Yeah, definitely. I was like, Look, when I get a job here, you’re gonna be like, there’s that crazy girl and I walked out because he was pissing me off. I was like, Why is nobody listening to me? I know exactly what I want. Just give me the damn person. Yeah.

Gigi Johnson 19:04
For those people who’ve been listening to the podcast, you’ll this may ring true with the Chris’s ita interview, who did this for months and months at Disney. And that was the only place he was applying for and finally got the opportunity to come in by someone who was sympathetic to the story. So you were persistent. Yes.

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 19:23
Super persistent. So on my way back. I was thinking like, how do I do this? I’m connecting the dots. You know, Steve Jobs commenced this feature, he says connecting the dots moving forward. Well, I didn’t have time for that. I was already you know, like going backwards. I was connecting the dots move forward. So I don’t know why but it got I got a like hit of like . . . I drove by Otis [College]. And I was like, Wait, what is this place? Oh, this is cool. I’m gonna look this up. So I looked it up. And it said they have a toy design program that services.

Gigi Johnson 19:54
Otis College of Design. Also here in LA. Yeah.

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 19:57
Yeah, so it was on my way back from Mattel, but . . . A lot of interesting synchronicities happened. And I basically called up Otis and I said, I want to meet with a toy design chairperson. And he said, Sure, come to my office. So I walked in. And he was like, beautiful man wearing fashion designer clothes. And he had toys everywhere in his like office. And I was like, this is the coolest thing. I just graduated from bachelor’s. Do you have a master’s program for toy design? Because I’m super creative. I would love to do this. He goes, “No, unfortunately, we don’t.” And I said, What do you think I should do? Because I really want to be like Tom Hanks movie Big. He laughed, and he said, Why don’t you call my friend. He’s the head of research. Ask him out for lunch. Ask him for some information to view. He’s a nice guy. He’ll do it. Tell him I sent you. And let’s see how it goes. And I said, okay, cool. Thank you, Mr. Martin Cabeza. So next day, I went and called his friend who was the head of research. He actually picked up the phone; his assistant said it was a miracle. And I said, Martin from Otis said, I should call you because I’d love to learn more about your job. I want to take you out for lunch and, you know, do an information interview and he said, Well, I don’t have time for lunch. I just come over. Okay, so I walk in to Mattel now with an appointment.

Gigi Johnson 21:14
Maybe . . .

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 21:18
Remember this crazy girl? She’s back? Yes, I walk in. I walk into his office. Super nice corner office. He’s got like this amazing poster of Jetsetter, which is my favorite Shag [print]. He was really into Shag. I was I was obsessed with Shag because of him. My old boss Michael Shore. So I walk in, I shake his hand and I hand him a business card. And he looks at me and he says you’re an entrepreneur. And I said wait, what? No, no, no. What are you talking about? I said I want to be like Tom Hanks in the movie Big and I’m here to learn about your job. He goes, I’ve never seen anything like this. You just graduated from college and you handed me a business card with a link to your resume on it. That’s super innovative. I’ve never seen anything like it. You’re an entrepreneur. He wouldn’t stop he was like you’re an innovator for like 10 minutes and I was like no no no, I thought this is cool. Yes, it stands out, but I want to get a job here.

So I’m going to cut it short cuz you’ve got lovely stories but . . . so you were at it Mattel. So you were in kind of the kingdom of exactly what you wanted, which is a very large and complex organization. And it’s more complex now than then. And then you left there to go with these other strange, fabulous dolls.

Yeah, so yeah, so basically after nine months, he finally created a position for me and then I was at Mattel for three years. And then I went through the motions of “I need to probably go back to school” because I either needed a masters or PhD to grow at Mattel apparently. And then I was debating on going back to school and then I found out MGA was right around the corner from CSUN. So that’s how that started. So yeah, basically started the research department at MGA from scratch and also was the brand manager for Brats within six months.

Gigi Johnson 23:19
So you before talking about Brats have mentioned fashion twice. One about your third grade teacher. One about the guy at Otis. And then Brats is a fashion fashion doll with different fashion sets and Barbie. For those who don’t know? Yeah, exactly.

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 23:33
Yeah, exactly. I was I was always obsessed with fashion too. And my, my boss, Michael Sharp at Mattel, was super fashionable too. So yeah

Gigi Johnson 23:40
The thread cutting through all of this.

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 23:43
Yeah, exactly.

Gigi Johnson 23:44
So you’ve shared the story of Deepak Chopra inspiring you to be in . . . to walk into your inspiration. Can you share with us briefly how that was a pivot point for you?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 23:59
Sure, yes. So when I was having my existential crisis that MGA . . . Well, I want to say it happened like two and a half, almost three years into having the corner office and the toys and everything I ever wanted. I would hear parents always complaining about how they weren’t positive role models for their daughter, Brats, and Barbie and even Spider Man which I was like, I have nothing to do with Spider Man. I don’t know where that came from. I was really having a serious existential crisis and wanting to find myself so I did like raw food classes. Like I did like life coaching. I did all these things. And I didn’t even know who Deepak Chopra was at the time, but he . . . I saw him at an event and he told me to give back when I asked him, “What do you do when you get your dream?”He kept saying you have to give back and I was like, I volunteer my time. I give money to charity. I do a lot of stuff. What do you mean? He was like, no, no, trust me. I’ll figure it out. I was like, can you tell me give back to who, what, where? Like, another word, please? He was like no, no, trust me, you’ll figure it out. So that was like my big clue. Um, I call it now on the Tech Yellow Brick Road. And yeah, that was Deepak like, I guess the biggest like, two, two-liner clue that I’ve ever had in my life. And then Simon Sinek was the next one who wrote the book called Start with Why? And I asked him the same question that his book signing in LA and he said, what’s your purpose? And why? And I was like, Why is everybody giving me like a dangling clue? But not like a clear go do this thing? Like, well, let’s get connected?

Gigi Johnson 25:34
Because this question gets to be, you know, I see where the sun is on the horizon. But the how do I figure out what the bleep to do to get there, right? And you’ve had a lot of really great inspiration. How do you decide how to choose between options when building with girls when building out your programs? How do you decide what to say yes to being such a driven, creative entrepreneur? How do you try to read the tea leaves and decide where to put the spade in the ground?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 26:07
That’s a great question. I think it comes with, in a sense, it’s an intuitive inner knowing, but it’s also what is the world want, because now I’m on my journey of giving back and making a difference. So it’s interesting, because actually, WhizGirls Academy almost didn’t exist. Because I resisted it for nine months. And now it’s going back and forth. Like nine months, it took me to get a job at Mattel. And then nine months, the White House, Obama administration, White House was saying, do coding programs for kid. Do hackathons. Do this. Do that. And I was like, no, no, no, no, no. I’m bootstrapping a tech startup. I don’t not have time to do another thing. No, no. But every time I turn around, speaking somewhere, parents would walk up to me or like walking at USC, crossing the street, this woman literally dragged me by my collar and told me that I needed to teach her daughter how to code this summer. Like, there was always a constant message coming. And I was like, no, no, I’m good. Resisting. I’m resisting. But that’s what happens. So when I say no, it doesn’t mean No, forever, because I’ll get to signs and messages that I have to say yes.

Gigi Johnson 27:13
Is it? Is it saying no, though, as a bit of a defensive measure on your own creative energy? So you can’t do everything? So you need to focus? Or do you find that you tend to put a . . . you commented on the fac Are you a gamer or a gardener? In your your TEDx Youth talk. Do is it that you believe that you have to plant seeds, but can’t garden everything? How do you kind of decide? I mean, it’s a challenge, especially for female entrepreneurs, to try to not do everything and not spread yourself so thin How do you decide what to not do? So it sounds like you’ve been a lot of sort of time-based push and pull. How do you know when to close the door? How do you know when to open the door?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 27:59
I think it goes back to the gut feeling and also like what signs and messages I’m getting to I know it sounds cliche, but when I said no so many times. So the hackathons and the coding it was because I was like, there’s all these other programs, I’m not just going to be another program, right? So like when they kept coming to me, I was like, there’s Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, like there’s some million of these things. I can’t do another thing. And by the way, I learned how to code Fortran back in the 80s, which is a very different ballgame now. I can’t teach these kids Fortran, like, and what I see is there’s mostly Scratch for the younger kids. So like, how do we fill in the gap? And I think that’s where the creative innovator came in. And I was like, Wait, General Assembly has these coding programs they had just launched in LA. Why can’t we partner with them?

Gigi Johnson 28:51
For adult people.

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 28:51
For adults. Exactly. Yeah. And actually, they even resisted me and I said, You know what I’m going to send . . . when I started when I came to the point of like, literally, every time I turn around, somebody’s telling me I need to teach coding and doing hackathons. I said, I’m just gonna send you directly to General Assembly because I don’t have that. I don’t have curriculum, I don’t have the capacity. And right now I’m in the throes of looking to raise money for PlayWerks. But also building out like, I’m hiring game designers. I’m like, you know, building out the startup, the first one, right? So I came back to I have to, I’m going to send everybody . . . and after three weeks General Assembly called and we’re like, Let’s have a meeting to discuss this because we’re getting a lot of requests and we don’t know what to do. Like we don’t . . . we don’t have kids capacity, and we have a liquor license. That’s what they told me. They’re like, we can’t have kids here on our campuses.

Gigi Johnson 29:44
So many ways you connect dots together. So . . . you scale you, especially in the service space, education based business by tapping partners. So partnering with the White House, partnering with LAUSD coming back full circle there, instead of trying to scale you and burn you out, you tap into people to tie missions together. Is that a decent summary?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 30:13
Yeah, that makes sense. I think the partnership is a huge part of what I’m all about, because obviously, I can’t do everything. And going back to your question earlier, it’s like, yes, planting the seeds, but I can’t do it all at the same time. Although I come from, you know, kids brands, and that’s what they have. It’s not like Bratz just was the Bratz doll. We had like a fashion line, we had like an animated series that I worked on, you know, we had like, all these different things. And that’s what I plan to do for WhizGirls as well. But I can’t do it all at the same time.

Gigi Johnson 30:41
So how do you reflect on your own impact and success? Because in many ways, you have been planting seeds, with girls learning to code and be inspired to detect and connecting people, similar to what you got started with in third grade, right? So that, that, in fact, you’re kind of amplified her work in what you’ve done. How do you measure that it’s working? And how do you know when you . . . How do you feel when you’ve done enough? And can sit there and say, I’m gonna hold this and just be happy at this point in time? How do you . . . how do you kind of self measure the success of this stuff?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 31:23
That’s a great question. I usually see it in the eyes of the kids that we have been working with. So like seeing them go from, I’m not interested in tech, the girls and the boys in the minority areas, because that was kind of like my deal with the Obama White House. So seeing them go from I’m not interested in coding or tech, or being a game designer or any of these techie careers to, I want to do this now and look like I have my startup, I’m pitching you now, at the end of the day of our hackathons. That’s where I see the success because I’m literally planting the seed for them to make a difference in their lives and giving them the tools. So that’s how I see success. But I’m also an overachiever, and also super driven and, you know, passionate and wild and crazy like that. I guess Steve Jobs said It’s the crazy ones. So I’m always like, Wait, we’re not doing enough. Like, it’s not on that. Like, we need this. We need this. We need this. Obviously, I can’t do it all at the same time. And that’s what I get frustrated about because I’m like, I have all these things that I want to do, how can we haven’t launched the games that you know, all this stuff. But it’s literally like, you have to plant the seed. And that’s why I go back to my TED talk of like, Are you a gamer or gardener? Because planting the seed and it took me a really long time when Jordan Mechner told me what that means to figure it out. I thought he was on something when he first said that because I asked him like what do you do from a purely traditional toy entertainment kids background to focus on gaming and tech like how do you any literally turn me and said You have to be a gardener? And I was like what? Like, are you smoking something? Like no?

Gigi Johnson 32:59
Toy Gardner

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 33:00
Yeah, I get it completely.

Plant toys . . . Anyways.

Gigi Johnson 33:04

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 33:05
Now I get it completely

Gigi Johnson 33:09
So how do you know when you’re done? So how do you know when to move to the next thing because you . . . you’ve moved to the next thing several times you’ve moved from Mattel to Bratz. You’ve moved from Bratz into your own companies, you’ve been percolating this for quite a while, you’ve picked up partner programs. How do you close doors?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 33:33
That’s a good question. I feel like when the universe says it’s time, I follow, like I said signs and messages very, very closely and clearly. And I feel like there’s no random accidents. Like everything is kind of divinely timed, at least for me, it has been. Like, running into someone at a party over the summer has led to this new project that’s coming. And then like two days after I met her, I ran into her on the street, like walking in my neighborhood, like I’ve never walked there, never seen her, like, you know, I mean. So like those things happen in my life where I again, connect the dots going forward, but for me, I feel like it’s never done just because I’ve just only just begun to like, launch a brand and then a brand that has so many different moving parts. Just like my, you know, my, I know how that works in my world. But most people don’t understand how it’s all connected because people would be like, Oh, you’re doing some of that stuff and teaching and advising for Bixel and doing stuff for the mayor’s office and — and I was like look for me I see it’s all connected. This is like that kind of like the tree of life for it. You might not see it and it doesn’t make sense to you but then I would be like yeah, Musk does a million things not that I’m comparing myself to him but I mean, people that do get shit done are doers. I’m a doer. And I won’t stop . . .

Gigi Johnson 34:50
You’re not in a single box right?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 34:52
Yeah, I can never be in a box . . . I don’t do well in the box. In fact, and that’s actually funny that you say that because my boss at Mattel was trying to keep me in the box and I was like No, no, no, no, not happening.

Gigi Johnson 35:03
So we’re nearly at the end of our conversation. We have covered the waterfront. We’re going to have in the show notes, all these puzzle pieces for people who would like to tap in and take a look at it more. What have we not talked about? Other than the thing you can’t talk about yet? What have we not talked about that you want to mention before we close up?

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 35:24
It’s a good question. I feel like everyone has a purpose and a mission on this planet. And I say this all the time. But I feel like once you know what that is, it’s not like it’s ever handed to you on a silver platter, but you have to work for it. And you know instinctively what that is like for me. At first, I never thought I would ever leave the toy business. And technically, I don’t ever want to make physical toys for kids. But I’m doing things that are in the digital space that are similar in a sense. But as we move technologically and become more advanced with tech, I’m like, Okay, I’m super heart centered. I’m super here to make a difference and give back and everything that I’ve heard people say that I should be doing now. And now I connect the dots, right? So like, what Tom Hanks did for me I’m doing as a give back for the next generation of kids with technology and gaming, and making girls excited about STEM and gaming and tech and boys from the inner city. Like, that was technically my focus initially, it’s like, I always say, We’re girl focused, and boy inclusive, because I think it’s really important. We don’t live in a bubble. But also, I am creating a lifestyle tech brand for kids. And that’s never been done before. So it’s always being that, you know, first innovator and being creative in that space to be understood, because it’s always been like, Wait, what are you doing? Really? Oh, that’s interesting. Okay, wait, you’re meditating with the kids, like your, and we did Job Corps for a week summer camp, and they were like, you’re gonna do yoga? Like, I thought we thought the kids were gonna do coding, I was like, No, we have to do all of it. Like, we can’t just sit on a computer for like, a full week, there’s no way.

Gigi Johnson 37:03
Ahead of your time, ahead of the pandemic. And then sort of closing comment on this that you have been running. . . . You have been in a in a shifting of all this during the pandemic when a hackathon is a generally live person event. So now you’re kind of sprouting those wings again. How can people get a hold of you if they would like to participate in what you’re doing? And what do you need? I think you commented, before we got started that interns! You need interns!

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 37:35
Yes, because I’m getting a lot of requests for hackathons in person again. So I’m super excited about that. Yes, interns are much needed. And you can get a hold of me at my website, or Instagram or my email, which is But yeah, in terms I definitely need interns.

Gigi Johnson 37:58
And I guess asking you a little bit non sequitur question: franchise? Is there ability for someone who thinks, oh, this is so cool. I would love to do because you’re mostly California with this? Yes. With the hackathon . . .

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 38:12
For now. Yeah. Yeah, we’ve gotten requests to do other cities and countries, actually. But yeah, mostly . . . that’s a good question. franchise. I haven’t looked into that yet. But I was thinking about maybe licensing out a curriculum for a while. I’ve been open to different things. It’s just that path hasn’t been open technically. And that’s going back to your earlier question, I think is like how . . . if I push so hard, sometimes it doesn’t work. And I’m like, Okay, what’s not the right time? Just not.

Gigi Johnson 38:38
Thank you for being on this show. And everybody . . . thank you for enjoying this. And please join us for the next installment of Creative Innovators. And I’m very glad that we could hang out together and tell stories together for people to get inspired.

Shirin Lao-Raz Salemnia 38:55
Thank you so much for having me. This is awesome.

Transcribed by

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